(CMR) Parents usually dread when their children become teenagers; it is the stage of their beautiful lives when they show bad attitudes. Parents often do not know how to deal with their teenagers. Parents magazine writer Dr. Emily Edlynn, your teen's attitude, could be as a result of the following:
1. Brain on fire
Dr. Edlynn explained that our emotions live in our brain's limbic system, which lights up when we feel them—pleasant or unpleasant. Studies have shown that this limbic system affected by puberty hormonal changes results in increased emotional outbursts and impulsivity for adolescents. Imagine your annoyance when someone asks you to do something you don't want to do, and triple it in your teen's brain.
2. Testing limits
Another formative part of adolescent development is testing limits. It's not a conscious, “What happens if I let my emotions fly when my mom asks me to clean up?” but a learned association can develop. When I flip out because I don't want to help around the house, mom backs off, and I don't have to do it.
The limits can be emotional as well: your daughter may not know where or how else to unleash all this intense emotion, so she flings it at you as her emotional safe place. If nothing too terrible happens, this can become a pattern that feels easier to her than the hard work of regulating these intense emotions independently.
3. You are their safe place
It is motherhood lore that our children behave differently with us, whether they save their worst toddler tantrums for when we are alone with them or fall apart at home after a day of holding it together at school. They know (hopefully) we love them no matter how they act. If your teen openly debates and argues with you, they trust they can do so without losing your love and support. So, ironically, your teen “with attitude” might be a sign she is developing her independence within a trusting relationship with you.
What to do about their attitude
All of these understandable reasons for teenagers acting out does not give them full reign to behave and treat us however they want just because we unconditionally love them. We can have empathy for the emotions while placing boundaries around the behaviors.
Teens have often been compared to toddlers in terms of the primal nature of their emotions. Although adolescents have many more skills than toddlers, their feelings can feel just as out of control. As their brains change, along with the demands of their environments (social, academic), they need to develop more sophisticated self-regulation strategies than what worked at younger ages.
Start with a discussion during a calm, peaceful moment to identify the problem (“lashing out”), its natural consequences (high stress and conflict between you), and possible replacements for lashing out (emotion regulation strategies). It helps to name what would motivate her to change, such as less arguing. It is often helpful for her to make a visual list of strategies to help them get into the habit of using them; standard methods include going for a walk or run, listening to music, writing in a journal, drawing, connecting with a friend. If she can learn ways to calm herself at the moment, she can better do the next critical step: discuss her stress and emotions directly with you rather than taking them out on you.
Within all of this support for her emotions, maintain your behavioral expectations like helping around the house and responding to you respectfully even if in disagreement.
When to get help
A wide range of teenage behavior can fit on the continuum of “normal,” no matter how aggravating. However, if irritability dominates your daughter's mood, and she seems to have difficulty enjoying activities, or you notice other significant changes in sleep, appetite, or behaviors, you may want a psychological evaluation. A mental health professional with expertise in adolescents can ensure that a mental health condition like depression or anxiety does not explain what you are observing. If your daughter is experiencing symptoms at a mental health diagnosis level, the sooner she gets help, the better.